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Hilsenrath v. School District of Chathams

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 13, 2018

LIBBY HILSENRATH, on behalf of her minor child, C.H.,, Plaintiff,
v.
SCHOOL DISTRICT OF THE CHATHAMS; BOARD OF EDUCATION OF SCHOOL DISTRICT OF THE CHATHAMS; MICHAEL LASUSA, in his official capacity as the Superintendent of the School District of the Chathams; KAREN CHASE, in her official capacity as the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction at the School District of the Chathams; JILL GIHORSKI, in her official capacity as the Principal of Chatham Middle School; STEVEN MAHER, in his official capacity as the Supervisor of Social Studies for the School District of the Chathams; MEGAN KEOWN, in her official capacity as a Social Studies teacher for Chatham Middle School; CHRISTINE JAKOWSKI, in her official capacity as a Social Studies teacher for Chatham Middle School; Defendants.

          OPINION

          KEVIN MCNULTY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is the defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). For the reasons stated herein, the motion will be denied.

         Introduction

         The plaintiff, Libby Hilsenrath (on behalf of her child, C.H., a middle school student), sues the Chatham School District and Board of Education, as well as individual school administrators and teachers in their official capacities only. She asserts a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that the school's curriculum violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by promoting the Islamic faith.

         Plaintiffs position, if I may paraphrase it, is that the public schools may not Constitutionally proselytize on behalf of a religion, but that the Chatham schools have crossed that line here. In particular, the plaintiff alleges, C.H. has been exposed to two videos and a worksheet that contain materials that members of the Islamic faith use to express religious beliefs or proselytize others.[1] The Complaint begins with a quotation from those materials: "May God help us all find the true faith, Islam. Ameen." This is captioned as the Chatham school authorities' "call for the conversion of 7th grade students." Such materials, the Complaint alleges, have a primary purpose of promoting and advancing the Islamic religion. The Complaint also alleges that the curriculum gives insufficient attention to the Christian and Jewish religions. The Complaint primarily seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, but adds a prayer for nominal damages, as well as costs and fees.

         The defendants' position, likewise paraphrased, is that world religions have a profound influence on human affairs and are therefore an appropriate subject of secular study. The Chatham curriculum, in their view, does not exceed proper bounds. The defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint, stating that they have not promoted, endorsed, or proselytized on behalf of any religion. Rather, say the defendants, the students study world religions as part of their academic education in a class called World Cultures and Geography. That yearlong class, they say, covers many areas of the world, and embraces such subjects such as geography, trade, art, social, economic and political structures, and everyday life, as well as religions and religious texts. Many religions, they say, are covered, but to study them is not to endorse or promote them. One unit of the class covers the Middle East and North Africa, and materials concerning the Islamic faith, say defendants, are a necessary part of that unit. They allege that the class has no parochial focus or agenda; the materials regarding Islam, according to defendants, must be understood as but one component of a comprehensive social studies curriculum.

         I need not endorse either party's position to recognize that there is a dispute here which requires the development of a factual context. This complaint, as complaints do, makes allegations which are yet untested by any fact finder. The motion to dismiss, as such motions sometimes will, makes other, also untested statements about the broader curriculum and the educational process. No evidence, however, is yet before the court. Such factual, context-dependent issues cannot be resolved at this very early stage of the litigation.

         Let me put it another way. As a lawsuit, this matter may present controversial issues. As a motion to dismiss, it does not. There will be opportunity enough to consider the substantive issues when evidence has been developed in discovery and the facts have been developed. For now, I will deny the motion to dismiss with minimal discussion.

         Discussion

         1. Sufficiency of the allegations

         One component of the defendants' motion asserts that the Complaint should be dismissed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

         a. The applicable standard of review

         Rule 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The defendant, as the moving party, bears the burden of showing that no claim has been stated. Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005). In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court must take the allegations of the complaint as true and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (traditional "reasonable inferences" principle not undermined by Twombly, see infra).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) does not require that a complaint contain detailed factual allegations. Nevertheless, "a plaintiffs obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Bell Atl Corp. v. Twombly,550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Thus, the complaint's factual allegations must be sufficient to raise a plaintiffs right to relief above a speculative level, so that a claim is "plausible on its face." Id. at 570; see also Umland v. PLANCO Fin. Serv., Inc.,542 F.3d 59, 64 (3d Cir. 2008). That facial-plausibility standard is met "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal,556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) ...


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